I worry that local government and transparency interest me so much. There are better things for a man of my age to be interested in, surely. But this example of how not to do it from Wales and now on YouTube intrigued me. (Which I found via Richard Wilson’s blog)

To give a short version:

  1. Member of the public starts filming council meeting
  2. Chairman asks her to stop, she refuses
  3. Chairman adjourns meeting and calls the police, she is arrested.

There is clearly history between the council and the campaigner, and I don’t think I’m being unfair in saying that she probably could have handled it better (ultimately, you have to respect the chairman’s decision: it’s the way meetings work). But it’s so contrary to common sense to stop someone unobtrusively, but not secretly, recording a public meeting of democratically elected members.

It’s particularly odd coming only a few months after well-publicised calls from the Secretary of State for councils to allow such recordings to be made and to give bloggers the same level of access as traditional journalists.

As far as I’m aware no-one has bothered recording a Wandsworth council meeting, but I hope we handle it a lot better if they do.

Correction (of sorts): Dafydd Vaughan has pointed out that Eric Pickles has no jurisdiction in Wales, as it’s a devolved matter. It’s perhaps a reflection of a London-centric view that I hadn’t thought about that when originally writing. However, it’s also true that Pickles doesn’t have jurisdiction over English councils on this matter; and I think the moral pressure his statements represented are as applicable in Wales as they are in England.

An empty press table (for illustration only, taken after the meeting to comply with council Standing Orders!)

Last night was the council tax setting meeting. If the council has anything like a set-piece debate in its calendar it must surely be the council tax setting. It’s as close as we get to a Queen’s speech or a budget.

For the record we froze council tax again – though this year it seems we’ve been joined by most other councils in following that route (I read the other day that this is the first year in 18 that nationally the average council tax has decreased).

But what troubled me is how poorly attended it was.

Despite all the controversy about cuts, deficits and everything else relatively few people attended, even though the Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council were organising a demonstration. When I arrived there were only about a dozen people there, I think most as part of the union protest (basing my assumption on the fact most had union banners and placards).

This isn’t a criticism of protest turnout. When the council serves nearly 300,000 residents even if they had hundreds protesting it would arguably be “poorly attended”.

Instead it set me thinking about transparency and public accountability: specifically about Eric Pickles recent call that bloggers be let into Town Halls.

Because what really got me was not that relatively few residents were there to see the council making decisions, but that no press were there either. Last night’s agenda had three main items: the council tax, a debate about libraries (and specifically York Gardens) and a debate about the purchase of the Bolingbroke site for a free school.

Probably the three biggest political issues the council has but, as usual, the press desk in the council chamber was empty.

Sitting just a few yards from the empty press desk for three hours of debates it made me realise exactly why Eric Pickles is right about broadening access beyond the traditional media. Given that the local press can only rely on second-hand (and necessarily biased) accounts of the meeting, it’s hard to see who they can offer independent challenge.

Of course, like many councils, our standing orders are not naturally friendly towards blogging, a consequence of largely being written in an age before mobile telephones, let alone YouTube. And I’ll be honest, I don’t know any Wandsworth-focussed bloggers who might want a space at the press table, which is a far bigger problem.

But like so many things, if you don’t ask, you don’t get – and even if a blogger covers just one meeting a year, that’s better than the current arrangement of the traditional press not covering any meetings.

One of my concerns about the rush towards spending transparency for councils (Wandsworth publishes spending by vendor by month) are the unintended consequences. The We Love Local Government blog raises the question of whether it is actually more likely to lead to bad, rather than good, spending decisions.

The rationale is fairly simple; because there is a fear of published spending being criticised councils go for options that may be cheaper, but worse value. The example cited is of using a cheaper hotel, but then losing the saving in transport costs because of the hotel’s location. While I’ll use this example in this post but there will be many many similar situations across the country. I know that £500 has become a psychology spending limit for many, not because of any explicit instruction, but because of the knowledge that spending will be published.The result risks false economies. £510 on hotels hits the limit and is published. But £490 on hotels and £100 on taxis does not.

I think there’s a very simple way to tackle this and retain transparency: lower the publishing limit to zero. Then there aren’t the unintended consequences of people trying to spend below arbitrary limits on single items and all spending may need justifying to the public. This moves the whole thought process from “how can I keep all the individual spending below the publishing radar” to “how can I justify the total cost.”

And while it will require a culture change (for a time the Taxpayers Alliance will have a field day) when that happens I’m optimistic enough to think there will be scope for much more intelligent debate about the role and quality of local government. Instead of knee-jerk reactions to council officials living a ‘high-life’ in a hotels would it be too much for the reaction not to about whether the trip brought as much value to the borough as it cost?

It is only marginally related, but Greater Manchester Police’s decision to tweet all their calls is an example of this. There were, predictably, outbursts that such activity was a waste of money and the police should have been on the streets (no prizes for guessing it was the Taxpayer’s Alliance seeing their blood pressure rise again). But at the end there were huge numbers of people aware of what a police force actually finds itself doing, and I suspect a lot of people in Manchester suddenly much better informed about the true level of crime and disorder in their city. It’s a fair bet that a reduction in unnecessary calls will pay for the ‘experiment’ many times over. But most

I can’t help thinking that while the initial transition may be hard – resisted by some and lead to criticism from others – the more transparency and openness there is the better for everyone.